Monday, September 17, 2012

Quantified Self 2012: some cool things

Quantified Self is a movement of researchers, business folks, and hobbyists who are interested in understanding themselves more deeply through data. Usually we track some data, either numeric (number of steps I took each day, number of hours I sleep) or more abstract (dream journal, photos taken every 5 minutes by a camera around my neck). Usually the meetings are local; a couple dozen people get together and share whatever projects they're working on or questions they're interested in. Then there's an annual conference; this was the second one.

Stuff's less polished than at an academic or business-focused conference, so the things I took from it are a little more abstract than a list of papers. Here's some good stuff:

Instant Feedback Gadgets
Nancy Dougherty demoed an EMG smile sensor attached to a string of blinky LEDs. When she smiled, the lights blinked. She mentioned she'd post instructions on her blog at soon.

Lumoback is a posture sensor and feedback device. It's a comfortable band you wear around your waist that buzzes you when you slouch. This is the sort of thing I love, because it feels like you'd start to get a visceral sense of when you're slouching and automatically correct it. After a while, you wouldn't have to think about it at all, your posture would just be better.

In the same vein, I chatted with Eric Boyd, inventor of some neat biofeedback devices like the NorthPaw, which buzzes north until you eventually get a sense of where north is. What I didn't know before is that he's selling them.

Butterfleye ( is a pulse meter for swimmers. I love the inventor's goals: frictionless and glance-able. 

Other Tools That Work

Quantified Mind ( is a platform for testing mental functions. Nick Winter talked about his experiments trying 11 different interventions to improve his cognitive skills. (creatine and piracetam+choline worked well. butter actually made him much worse. interesting, given the QS community's interest in butter as a mental enhancement.) Yoni Donner gave a talk about the platform and their goals. They've got tests for processing speed, executive function, attention, inhibition, context switching, working memory, learning, motor skill, and visual processing. I love this; the idea that there's a battery of tests out there that we can take anytime that might actually repeatably measure cognitive skills is exciting. The downside is that it's hard to convince people (even me) to take tests for 10 minutes. They may be working on something about this, but even if not, it's super cool stuff.

Project Life Slice is a short script that takes a screenshot and a photo of you every hour. So simple, but smart: gives you a sense of when you're working and what you're doing.

Other Neat Ideas
Matthew Keener talked about different brain areas that help make up our concept of the "self". Sure it's a simplification (we're dealing with brains after all) but identifying about 9 areas that really matter (and how they matter) is very interesting to me. So what can we do with this? (Besides FMRI tests?)

Kevin Kelly ( became the first person I've ever met to have reported actually trying the Uberman sleep schedule (20 minute nap every 4 hours, no sleep at night) successfully. He said he did it for two months but eventually gave it up because you really couldn't miss even one nap or you'd crash hard.

Larry Smarr reported on a long series of self-tracking to understand health problems. I've heard of omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, but he also pointed out Complex Reactive Protein (CRP) as an inflammation marker.

Robin Barooah talked about his relationship with coffee; stopping coffee made him more productive (though he felt less productive), but starting it again helped his mood. Indeed, coffee can ward off depression. What struck me about his talk is how this data not only gave him things to act on, but it helped him reflect on portions of his life and meant a lot to him. (oh, he's made a cool meditation tracking iPhone app too.)

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